Yesterday, I received a shipment of my forthcoming book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice. This book is the product of nearly four years of love and labor, as I researched and then wrote the stories of 18 White Americans who joined people of color in the struggle for racial justice. Their stories are relatively unknown, and I have shared them to provide examples for White people today on what it means to be a true anti-racist ally.
What follows are a few excerpts from the first chapter, where I share my purpose in writing the book. I hope you find these words intriguing and worth reading more. The book is due out November 20 but can be pre-ordered through Amazon or Orbis Books. Enjoy!
One day in the 1850’s, a young girl named Abbie Whinnery was swinging on the iron gate in front of her house. Abbie was the daughter of John Whinnery, one of the stationmasters of the underground railroad in the staunchly abolitionist town of Salem, Ohio. The night before, a group of runaway slaves had been shepherded into Salem and, at that very moment, were hiding in the Whinnery’s attic until the evening fell and they would be moved further north in the network of safe houses that had been developed through Ohio from Kentucky to the Canada. As Abbie played in her front yard, a marshal and two deputies rode up to the house. Even though Ohio was considered a “free state,” the Fugitive Slave Law empowered law enforcement officials from the slave-holding states to seek and arrest slaves who had escaped north to places like Ohio.
Approaching the young girl in pigtails, the marshal asked Abbie “You folks got any slaves in your house, Miss?” Without batting an eye, Abbie replied “Not a one.” Because Abbie and her family were Quakers, and Quakers were known not to lie, the marshal said “Come on then, men. She’s a Quaker” and went on their way.
After the men had departed, Abbie’s father who had overheard the whole conversation came out to the gate. “Abbie, he said, “I heard what thee said to the men who came here. Thee knows there are six men hidden in our attic this minute. Did thee tell an untruth?”
Again without hesitation Abbie responded, “Oh no, Papa. He asked about slaves, but thee told me that no human beings are ever slaves. They are free men to us, aren’t they?”
Whether this story is true or apocryphal, it illustrates that, despite the racism that prevailed throughout the United States of the 1850’s in both the North and South, there were White people like the Whinnery family that were able to transcend the attitudes of their time, and who risked arrest, ostracism and in some cases even death in order to oppose that racism and to ally themselves with those brutalized and degraded by it. All too often the stories of these brave anti-racist allies like Abbie Whinnery are left untold.
My conviction is that White people who have become sensitized to the challenges of racism can be encouraged by stories of White anti-racist allies who have gone before them. These stories provide models and examples as to how Whites today must face the challenges of White privilege and White supremacy. Whites who have become aware of the horrific history of White oppression of People of Color need to know that in spite of that awful history, there were people who saw beyond their “White blinders” and took actions toward racial justice in their time. These White anti-racist allies bucked the trends of their time and for that they need to be remembered. I am in no way suggesting that they were somehow without prejudices and flaws, for indeed they were. However despite those flaws, the very fact that they lived as they did can give Whites hope that even though they may still struggle with the effects of conscious and unconscious racism throughout their lives, they too can join the forces for reconciliation and justice.
In telling the stories of these White anti-racist allies, I do not want to suggest that their stories efforts surpass the accomplishments of those courageous People of Color who have always had to lead the way….Rather, I hope to show that throughout the history of racism there have been White folks who have been willing to follow courageous People of Color in their fight for justice, and that they chose to use the power and access that their Whiteness afforded them to work for a more racially just society… [D]espite [their] shortcomings the people highlighted in this book came to a place in their lives where they took an active stance to oppose the racist practices and policies of their day, sometimes at great personal cost… My hope is that these stories will inspire the telling of other stories, many of which may be known in only limited circles. Moreover, I hope that Whites and People of Color reading this book can see that, despite the horrific history of White racism over the past 500 years, there is also a legacy of opposition comprised of White anti-racist allies from whom we can learn and in whose steps we can follow.
The story of Abby Whinnery comes from Dale Shaffer, Salem: A Quaker City History (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002),43.
The term “white blinders comes from Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel – Revised and Expanded (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).